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Jul 10, 2005

Benitez seeking balance

Terry Venables liked his goalkeepers. George Graham loved a centre-back (though he preferred to have at least six). Neil Warnock has amassed a selection of journeymen forwards. Now we have discovered what Rafael Benitez's weakness is: wingers.

Or, to be precise, left wingers. To Harry Kewell, Luis Garcia, Stephen Warnock and John Arne Riise, he has added Mark Gonzalez and Boudewijn Zenden. Luis Figo could give the Spaniard a seventh option on the left flank.

Liverpool, the city of Militant, have more left wingers than the Labour government.

At Valencia, the board controlled the transfers, leaving Benitez to lament: 'I asked for a sofa and they bought me a lamp.'

He was referring to the club's reluctance to sign strikers but, to extend the furniture metaphor, Benitez now has more armchairs than MFI. It is probably just as well that reports Liverpool wanted to take Damien Duff in part-exchange for Steven Gerrard had no foundation.

But if the willing but essentially limited Antonio Nunez is still on the right flank, Liverpool will be more reliant on left-wing attacks than Arsenal. However, a feature of Benitez's wingers is their versatility.

Garcia should be freed up to play in a more central role this season, as Kewell briefly did in the Champions League final. Warnock and Riise can revert to left back though the Norwegian, marauding from midfield, was among Liverpool's outstanding performers last season.

And Zenden, who has also played left-back, right-wing, centre-midfield and as a support striker, is arguably the most adaptable of all.

Unfortunately for the Dutchman, his arrival was rather hijacked by Gerrard's non-departure; when midfielders talk of emulating Patrick Vieira, they do not normally mean by conducting an annual, public and ultimately anti-climactic scramble for their services.

After Gerrard's eventual decision to stay, Benitez suggested that Liverpool's summer spending was proof of the club's ambition. It was fortunate, therefore, that he had just secured the signature of Villareal's Jose Manuel Reina, the young goalkeeper many regarded as the best in La Liga last season.

But the Chilean Gonzalez and Sevilla right back Antonio Barragan are untried, particularly in England. Midfielder Mohammed Sissoko, subsequently signed from Valencia, is another youthful acquisition. Zenden excelled at Middlesbrough, but he was only a squad player at Chelsea and Barcelona.

So Figo would be a significant signing, and not just because right midfield was something of a problem position for Benitez last season.

Before the term 'galactico' became discredited, the Portuguese fully deserved to be described as one. And while he has become surplus to requirements at Real Madrid, that has much to do with their unique politics.

Those fearful of the next Patrick Kluivert should bear in mind Figo's fierce commitment even when out of form. The former World Player of the Year's importance goes beyond that; he would represent the highest-profile signing anywhere in England this summer.

Chelsea have failed to entice any of the most celebrated players on the planet to Stamford Bridge. Manchester United's two buys have been comparatively cheap. Arsenal have bought Belarus' finest, Alexander Hleb.

But the Premiership's pulling power appears to have been reduced in recent years.

If fame alone was a guarantee of success, Real Madrid would have swept the board the last two seasons. Liverpool were one of the sides to prove that the underdog could prosper.

But the focus on wingers suggests a recognition from Benitez that Liverpool need more than a counter-attacking masterplan to succeed in the Premiership.

Because they occupy a curious position - are they the fifth best side in England or Europe's top team? The former would court Peter Crouch, the latter would ignore the beanpole forward. Their problems in the Premiership appear to have prompted a bid for the Southampton striker, coupled with Feyenoord's reluctance to sell Dirk Kuijt.

Crouch outscored Liverpool's strikers last year when, like Benitez's Valencia, there was a reliance on midfielders to provide vital goals. But the return of Djibril Cisse to full fitness after his horrific broken leg and Fernando Morientes' adjustment to the demands of English football offer hope that will change.

The suspicion remains that Benitez would not have been distraught to lose Milan Baros, whose head-down running and lack of direction can frustrate.

And though El-Hadji Diouf has gone, it is hard to see Salif Diao or Kewell figuring prominently in his plans. The departure of Mauricio Pellegrino, meanwhile, leaves Benitez short of alternatives to Sami Hyypia and Jamie Carragher in the centre of defence.

The Liverpool manager has confirmed he wants at least two more players, likely to include a centre-back and a striker.

His search would have been aided by the proceeds of selling Gerrard.

His captain has dominated the summer agenda at Anfield, but as the attention switches to the early start to Liverpool's defence of their Champions League crown, Rafael Benitez has still work to do in the transfer market. But he doesn't need any more left wingers.

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